How Does the FCC Find Naughty Language?

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It was a banner weekend for F-bombs. In Boston last Saturday, Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz dropped one into a pre-game speech, saying “This is our f***ing city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”

Then, on Sunday, A.J. Clemente spent his first and last day as a weekend anchor on KFYR, Bismarck, North Dakota’s NBC affiliate. Clemente, not realizing his mic was on, let loose a “f***ing s***” just as his co-host went to introduce him. He was fired on Monday.

Since the passage of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, such violations of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decency standards normally mean a fine of $325,000. The FCC has apparently decided to let Ortiz slide, though. Chairman Julius Genachowski took to the Commission’s Twitter account to say:

There’s no word yet on whether there will be a fine for Clemente’s language. The incidents got us wondering, though: How does the FCC keep tabs on radio and broadcast TV programming for the obscene, indecent and/or profane material that it's tasked with policing?

As much as one might want to imagine a small army of government agents in a bunker somewhere monitoring every TV and radio station in the country around the clock, the FCC admits that they cannot and do not monitor particular programs, performers or stations. Instead they rely on everyday citizens to narc on broadcasters and bring objectionable material to their attention in the form of official complaints. They received 1883 of these in the first three quarters of 2012, the latest numbers available. As these complaints come in, the FCC reviews them to figure out if a violation has actually occurred. If one has, FCC staff investigates and may issue a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) to notify the broadcaster of the violation and then a Forfeiture Order, or fine.

The FCC’s quick forgiveness of Ortiz may be less “let’s give Boston a break, they had a rough week,” and more of a sign of things to come. Earlier this month, the Commission asked for public comment on whether it “should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies or maintain them as they are.” Specifically, they’re wondering how we’d all feel about them focusing on egregious (i.e., deliberate and repetitive) violations, and being more lenient on isolated incidents.